Resources to Discuss “The Social Dilemma” with Students
One of the most popular films on Netflix at the moment is a documentary that was released in September 2020 called “The Social Dilemma.” It is a dystopian film that describes the pernicious impact of social media on our lives and argues for governmental regulation of social media.
While we wait for the government to intervene, we as educators need to begin conversations with our students on how they are being manipulated by social media platforms. What is happening is not simply that we are spending more and more time on our devices. Rather, what is happening is that social media has been purposely designed to influence our attitudes, beliefs, emotions, preferences, behaviors, and relationships in ways that we are completely unaware of.
We have been so impressed by the positive, efficient, and grand improvements technology has made in our lives that we have not been aware of the accompanying trade-off. It is true that YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have exposed us to the world, yet, at the same time, we have become more clannish and tribal than ever before. We are more connected yet also more lonely. We have access to the widest range of opinions, but at the same time, we have become more divided, polarized, and angry. This is because while we are in front of our screens, there are algorithms working on the other side of our screens that can sense our emotional vulnerabilities and exploit them for profit.
Tristen Harris, former design ethicist at Google and current CEO of the Center for Humane Technology, argues that tech platforms make billions of dollars by keeping us clicking, scrolling, and sharing. The goal is to get us addicted and make us “users” as if we were abusing illegal drugs. The result is a steep decline in teen mental health and feelings of self-worth as well as an increase in conspiracy thinking, an erosion of trust, and a breakdown of truth.
Below are three resources to prepare educators to engage students in a discussion of “The Social Dilemma.”
Firstly, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, addresses this issue in an article published in The Atlantic three years ago titled, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.” Her article tackles a sad phenomenon that all educators have observed: the decline in the mental health of our students.
Twenge has been following trends in mental health, which have been fairly stable, since the 1930s. She noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states such as anxiety, depression, and suicide starting in 2012. This was the year when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. She writes: “Social media exacerbates the age-old teen concern about being left out. Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly—on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.”
Next, Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and researcher on technology and culture and author of the book “Reclaiming Conversation” investigates what she calls an empathy gap that can be traced to a decline in unmediated face-to-face conversations. In the past 40 years, researchers have uncovered a 40% decline in measures of empathy among college students. Most of the decline took place after 2000.
She cites research that shows that even a silent cellphone on a lunch table causes two people to share less with each other. The presence of a cellphone in the periphery of one’s eyesight leaves people less connected to each other, less interested in each other, and less empathic towards each other. The more time we spend Whatsapping and emailing instead of talking face to face, our empathy muscles, which lie at the foundation of human society, atrophy. She writes “Young people were taking their eyes off each other and onto their phones…Time with people teaches children how to be in a relationship, beginning with the ability to have a conversation. …As students began to spend more time texting, they lost practice in face-to-face talk. That means lost practice in the empathic arts—learning to make eye contact, to listen, and to attend to others.” According to Turkle, the empathy gap stands at the core of the technology tradeoff.
Lastly, I direct your attention to the thinking of Micha Goodman, an English-speaking social philosopher in Israel. He addresses the pandemic of ideological polarization in this article and talk. He observes that social media exploits the fact that we love our own opinions and our weakness for confirmation bias. “Facebook is aware of this weakness and knows that if a user is confronted with a view that challenges his own, the user will leave the site. Therefore, the algorithm is always giving back to the user different brands or versions of his own worldview, which innately causes more engagement with his own ideology. What happens is…they think they’re exposed to the world, but they really are exposed to their own worlds. I am brainwashing myself to believe with absolute certainty that I am right and as a result, when we meet someone who is brainwashed by his own views, we can’t understand each other, we can’t appreciate each other, and as a result, we are polarized.”
The film “The Social Dilemma” is not without its flaws. However, it makes us all more aware, as Tristen Harris notes, that “social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used. It has its own goals and it has its own means of pursuing them by using your own psychology against you.” Our students should be aware of this and, I am sure, have much to say about what we can do about this phenomenon.